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A for effort: Haworth Tompkins’ Dyson Building

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Smart, tough and open, but Haworth Tompkins’ Dyson Building for the Royal College of Arts could be too clever for its own good, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Philip Vile

The heavyweights on London’s chess board are moving.

Last year, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (AJ 03.11.11) relocated to N1C and, as London’s American Embassy prepares to move to Nine Elms in 2017, phase two of a new campus in nearby Battersea for the Royal College of Arts, masterplanned and designed by Haworth Tompkins, is now complete.

The Dyson Building, named after the inventor James Dyson and home to the college’s printmaking and photography departments, as well as Innovation RCA, opened in September. With the sculpture department located nearby since 1991, Dyson abuts Haworth Tompkins’ painting school in the Sackler Building (AJ 26.11 09).

When the practice’s Woo Building for ceramics and glass, gold and silversmithing, metalwork and jewellery opens in 2015, 37 per cent of the RCA will be in Battersea, with the balance in its Kensington campus. This will expand to 44 per cent when the fashion and textiles departments relocate in 2020.

Collocation is a priority for the RCA, which promotes a Bauhausian interdisciplinary cross-pollination. But the RCA does not consider it viable to have anything approaching a single campus with work places for all students in Kensington, its main location since Victorian times, especially with the recent and impending expansion in enrolment.

HT Cadbury-Brown’s nine-storey Darwin Building, which the design and applied art departments occupied in 1962, and neighbouring accommodation in Kensington Gore are both full. It’s a dilemma. There may never be a promised land for this influential institution, although further expansion in Battersea, with potentially more availability of B1 sites, may be possible. But some might question the extent to which fine art students could ever gel with graphic designers and other more vocational types. Although there is consensus that the quality and performance of the learning environment need to improve, there are debates about image and budgets. Five years into this architectural marathon, director Graham Haworth seems to be punch-drunk.

Like the Darwin, a landmark on the edge of Hyde Park, the Dyson is a building with a setting. Its Hester and Battersea Road frontages are visible from Cheyne Walk on the opposite side of the Thames, framed by two riverside Fosteroids; a brick mansion block and something really banal. The Dyson’s dark polished terrazzo cladding and undercut ground floor recede into the shadows. It would be hasty to dismiss them as ‘officey’ because offices and education buildings share similar functions.

Both may be corporate and image-conscious. OK, most activities in the Dyson take place in studios and workshops, but the Innovation RCA zone behind the terrazzo is for incubator design business units.

‘The whole ethos of the college is that it’s a grungy, messy environment,’ says Haworth. But Innovation RCA is an exception. If this concession to the grown-up world was a given, the Battersea Bridge Road frontage, with its income-yielding ground floor retail unit, was a good location and it would have been perverse to hide it behind a facade that said ‘scuzzy bohemia’. In any case, it has a niche officey feel, with the type of finesse you might expect of Eric Parry: more Economist Building than lumpen steel sandwich-clad call centre. Steel mullions for large glazed units are balanced with extruded curtain wall profiles and stainless steel channels. The royal crest says ‘law court’ or ‘police station’, but it would be hard to imagine the facade without this hallmark.

These facades also pick up on the smart informality of the Darwin, still much-loved even by English Heritage. Former RCA rector Robin Darwin initially asked for assistance with the project from interior design department course leader Hugh Casson, who formed a team with part-time RCA sculpture teacher HT Cadbury-Brown and Robert Gooden, head of silversmithing and jewellery and also an architect. It would be unfair to dismiss Darwin as spatially unimaginative. Cadbury-Brown avoided corridors and instead connected studios to workshops using an L-shaped section to alternate heights and maximise dual-aspect accommodation.

But the Dyson takes this spatial fluidity and openness to new levels, providing horizontal connectivity and transparency in what is a much more lateral structure. This also helps the RCA to achieve its objective of revealing its activities, using the gallery space on the Battersea Bridge Road frontage as a shop window and providing views from Hester Street through the glazed entrance lobby.

A triple-height atrium space is accurately described as the machine hall, which functions as a setting for working printing machines and other studio activity, rather than being a big dumb social space. There is a largish functional double-height social and multi-activity space that houses the ‘café/bar’, but it’s behind the building’s jutting glass external northwest corner. These lofty spaces add vertical connectivity in an ingenious and tightly planned three-dimensional matrix.

The internal language is much more vital than the more public frontages, with nothing superfluous. But it’s not Kazuo Kawasaki Minimalism. There’s an intervening level of detail, with light-membered roof trusses, perforated acoustic lining, mesh balustrading to the café and sculptural light fittings. Apart from the bronze anodising it’s a very grey-scale environment, but with a broad and clear gradation of contrasting tones that enhance and exaggerate the play of natural light, as sharp as a Zaha interior but with straight geometry. The tones in the lofty studio spaces on the upper floors, where the light is more diffused, are much softer. It’s a cohesive language of visual concrete, dark steel sections, pressed steel panel radiators, bespoke furniture, perforated aluminium, floating radiant panels overhead and highlights of silver, white and daylight. These visually bind the activities of an art school and what Haworth calls the ‘favela mentality’ in the studios, into an Eric de Maré-like monochrome ambience. >>

The lattice pattern of the main staircase and the machine hall trusses really do look like mechanisms. The CHS handrails are there to be gripped, not just caressed and contemplated. If the guardings to the overhead walkways in the machine hall have inelegant belt-and-braces layers of steelwork and glass oversailing glass panelling, this is because it is a safe functioning environment.

And yet, there is something self-conscious about the Dyson. Functional as the building is, there is something disingenuous about Haworth Tompkins’ concept that it should be like a factory, marrying the good intention that the RCA should be a place of activity, rather than just a destination where students spend two years being patted on the back, with the name Andy Warhol chose for his New York studio.

It’s not unlike Caruso St John’s notion that their new-build Nottingham Contemporary gallery (AJ 12.11.09) should be like an old warehouse. Surely the best modern architecture should be itself, rather than ‘like’ anything else. The planned internal connection between Dyson and the Sackler will certainly be a step in the right direction. There’s also something self-conscious and half-hearted about the more public elevations, in the way the glass panels jump up and down merrily and it twitches at the corners.

Perhaps fortuitously, the public entrance has restricted functionality because of programming complications and most students actually enter from Howie Street to the south through a courtyard which will be the site for the Woo Building, essentially an extrusion of its south elevation. Here the architectural language of stainless steel louvres, metal panels, blue brickwork and factory roofing is much more direct. Only time will tell whether the Dyson has succeeded in being an innovative postgraduate art school rather than a phantom image or analogy.

Project data

start on site June 2010
Completion March 2012
Client fit-out March-Sept 2012
Gross internal area 4,750m2
Form of contract JCT 2005
Construction cost £13.9 million
Cost per square metre £2,918
Architect Haworth Tompkins
Client Royal College of Art
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Planning consultant DP9
Cladding consultants Montrésor Partnership
Project manager AECOM Davis Langdon
CDM coordinator PFB Construction Management Services
Approved building inspector Approved Inspector Services
Main contractor Wates Construction
CAD software used MicroStation
Estimated annual CO2 emissions 32.9kg/m2
Airtightness at 50pa 3.6m3/h.m2
Estimated annual heating and hot water load 130kWh/m2
Overall area-weighted u-value 0.5W/m2K
Glazing curtain wall systems, metal and cementitious board cladding systems GIG Fassaden
Polished precast concrete panel cladding Decomo NV
Perforated profiled metal internal linings and external sinusoidal cladding Cadisch MDA
Concrete frame Toureen Mangan


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